Wednesday, April 16, 2014
By Noel K. Gallagher firstname.lastname@example.org
For Maine's education community, this year's legislative session is shaping up to be mostly about money.
The governor's budget proposes "seismic changes" in funding, such as suspending revenue sharing with cities and towns, that will dominate the debate, said Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, Senate chair of the Legislature's Education Committee.
"We have to make sure we are investing appropriately in education and that we are providing the resources to allow our teachers and students to thrive," Millett said of trying to increase funding for education.
Suspending revenue sharing, which would cut $200 million to cities and towns over the two-year budget, would affect schools as their municipalities tackle deep cuts in state funding.
In addition to battling over how much state money should flow to schools, educators must find money for several major initiatives launched under the LePage administration, experts say.
"We have some extremely important things in the upcoming five years, and declining resources," said Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals' Association. "From that perspective, any cuts are difficult to accept."
The LePage administration increased education funding in his last two-year budget, which ends June 30.
But the increase was wiped out late last year when LePage ordered state spending cuts that took nearly $13 million from schools.
The governor's $6.2 billion budget proposal for the two years starting July 1 would "flat fund" schools at $895 million, but that is based on post-curtailment budget figures so the earlier increase would be erased.
"I would argue that it wasn't flat-funded at all," Millett said.
The teachers union is also focused on fighting for more money, supporting legislation to require the state to provide 55 percent of funding for public schools, a standard set by voters in 2004 but never met.
"We're presently looking at about 46 percent, with further cuts coming at us," said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association.
Durost and others noted that schools face several major education initiatives, most passed with bipartisan support in past legislative sessions.
Public schools must adopt Common Core standards and tests, switch to a standards-based diploma requirement and adopt new performance standards for teachers and principals.
The governor's budget earmarks funds for those projects -- $2.5 million a year for evaluations and $2 million a year for the diploma requirement, for example -- but the overall education budget would not increase, so school districts would have to find that money elsewhere in their budgets.
A list of bill titles released by the state this week indicates other potential education battles. Among them could be a bill to allow school employees to carry concealed weapons, and numerous bills regarding charter schools.
The governor's office intends to submit a bill to remove Maine's current limit of 10 charter schools, and a bill to charge schools for remedial course costs incurred by their graduates, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education.
He said, "There has been a tremendous debate for a very long time about charter schools and about funding of charter schools and about taking money from some schools and balancing that against providing kids with options that are right for them.
"I don't think we've seen the end of that debate," he said, "nor will we for quite some time."
School consolidation, launched under Gov. John Baldacci, also remains controversial.
The law passed in 2007 aimed to cut administrative costs by merging the state's 290 school districts into 80 regional units.
Several bills this session would allow municipalities to leave regional school units, or allow regional school units to dissolve themselves.
LePage has said he wants even more consolidation.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: